Dismiss Dis

by rsbakker

I came across this quote in “The Hard Problem of Content: Solved (Long Ago),” a critique of Hutto and Myin’s ‘radical enactivism’ by Marcin Milkowski:

Naıve semantic nihilism is not a philosophical position that deserves a serious debate because it would imply that expressing any position, including semantic nihilism, is pointless. Although there might still be defenders of such a position, it undermines the very idea of a philosophical debate, as long as the debate is supposed to be based on rational argumentation. In rational argumentation, one is forced to accept a sound argument, and soundness implies the truth of the premises and the validity of the argument. Just because these are universal standards for any rational debate, undermining the notion of truth can be detrimental; there would be no way of deciding between opposing positions besides rhetoric. Hence, it is a minimal requirement for rational argumentation in philosophy; one has to assume that one’s statements can be truth-bearers. If they cannot have any truth-value, then it’s no longer philosophy.” 74

These are the kind of horrible arguments that I take as the principle foe of anyone who thinks cognitive science needs to move beyond traditional philosophy to discover its natural scientific bases. I can remember having a great number of arguments long before I ever ‘assumed my statements were truth-bearers.’ In fact, I would wager that the vast majority of arguments are made by people possessing no assumption that their statement’s are ‘truth-bearers’ (whatever this means). What Milkowski would say, of course, is that we all have these assumptions nonetheless, only implicitly. This is because Milkowski has a theory of argumentation and truth, a story of what is really going on behind the scenes of ‘truth talk.’

The semantic nihilist, such as myself, famously disagrees with this theory. We think truth-talk actually amounts to something quite different, and that once enough cognitive scientists can be persuaded to close the ancient old cover of Milkowski’s book (holding their breath for all the dust and mold), a great number of spurious conundrums could be swept from the worktable, freeing up space for more useful questions. What Milkowski seems to be arguing here is that… hmm… Good question! Either he’s claiming the semantic nihilist cannot argue otherwise without contradicting his theory, which is the whole point of arguing otherwise. Or he’s claiming the semantic nihilistic cannot argue against his theory of truth because, well, his theory of truth is true. Either he’s saying something trivial, or he’s begging the question! Obviously so, given the issue between him and the semantic nihilist is the question of the nature of truth talk.

For those interested in a more full-blooded account of this problem, you can check out “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-intentional Future” over at Scientia Salon. Ramsey also tucks this strategy into bed in his excellent article on Eliminative Materialism over on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And Stephen Turner, of course, has written entire books (such as Explaining the Normative) on this peculiar bug in our intellectual OS. But I think it’s high time to put an end to what has to be one of the more egregious forms of intellectual laziness one finds in philosophy of mind circles–one designed, no less, to shut down the very possibility of an important debate. I think I’m right. Milkowski thinks he’s right. I’m willing to debate the relative merits of our theories. He has no time for mine, because his theory is so super-true that merely disagreeing renders me incoherent.


Milkowski does go on to provide what I think is a credible counter-argument to eliminativism, what I generally refer to as the ‘abductive argument’ here. This is the argument that separates my own critical eliminativism (I’m thinking of terming my view ‘criticalism’–any thoughts?) from the traditional eliminativisms espoused by Feyerbrand, the Churchlands, Stich, Ramsey and others. I actually think my account possesses the parsimony everyone concedes to eliminativism without falling mute on the question of what things like ‘truth talk’ amount to. I actually think I have a stronger abductive case.

But it’s the tu quoque (‘performative contradiction’) style arguments that share that peculiar combination of incoherence and intuitive appeal that renders philosophical blind alleys so pernicious. This is why I would like to solicit recently published examples of these kinds of dismissals in various domains for a running ‘Dismiss Dis’ series. Send me a dismissal like this, and I will dis…

PS: For those interested in my own take on Hutto and Myin’s radical enactivism, check out “Just Plain Crazy Enactive Cognition,” where I actually agree with Milkowski that they are forced to embrace semantic nihilism–or more specifically, a version of my criticalism–by instabilities in their position.